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SpotLight: Wine, Beer, Bars and Pubs - The European Alcoholic Beverage Culture.
By Sarah Muxlow
Wednesday, 22nd March 2006
 
Whilst the increase in the international trade of wine and wine culture is reducing the Great North / South European in availability of variety of beverages, many a tradition surrounding the consumption of alcohol still remains. What is drunk, how much, when and where emphasises that national consumption is more than just a matter of personal taste, but is born out of current and historical social context.

A frequently debated question about alcohol in the current climate is whether drinking today means more than simply getting drunk? Alcohol awareness campaigns and negative national stereotypes, often dominate the drinking culture detracting from the essence of sitting in a local pub having a pint or sharing an aperitif or digestive at home.

The Pub Culture

Take for example the British Pub Culture. The ‘local pub' is considered a synonym for a welcoming, rustic/old traditional, homely, family friendly respectable Public House. A national icon to the British and a popular model of drinking house in Northern European/Scandinavian countries, it is a place to drink a beer at the weekend or after a day at work.

At the centre of this drinking culture is the traditional building, often dating back to 17/1800's, it is preserved, restored and located at the heart of every village, town and city. Traditionally, a pub supplies a selection of ales, bitters, lagers and beers as well as top shelf spirits and a small wine selection. The temperate of storage and service is important, nobody likes a warm flat beer. Pubs are rated according to how a pint is poured, with a suitable size head of foam and the variety of beer available. A beer drinker with an educated palette knows that each has it's own taste.

With a packet of salted peanuts, a drinker props up the bar for a chat with the bar tender (a psychologist with a friendly face), or adjourns to a seat beside an open log fire in winter/ beer garden in summer. Families are more often than not catered for with play grounds and smoke free areas. The ‘local' provides a meeting point, a place to hear about local events, news and current affairs. It is also a social outlet for the current mobile generation who find themselves displaced and in need of somewhere to connect to their new community.

Undeterred by the heavy taxes on UK alcohol, compared to the rest of Europe, the British are regular social drinkers. For pre-dinner drinks, a family might slip in to the pub for a glass of sherry or a quick half pint and then return home or stay on for a meal out. Typical pub food is reasonably priced and freshly cooked on the premises. The menu usually includes a ploughman's lunch, meat pie or roast meat lunch/dinner with vegetables, curry (no authentic Indian curry, but popular adaptation), chefs specials and side dishes to accompany. The family may then drink wine or beer with the meal and finish with a cup or tea or coffee.

After an evening at the cinema, theatre or community event, people stop off at the pub to debrief, talk over the evening and drink a night cap (whisky or spirit of choice). Visiting on a mid-week evening to break up a long dreary week, a person may drink a pint or two of beer, play a game of snooker, throw a few darts, join in a quiz. The conversation is an important part of the experience and reason to venture indoors and gather. It can an exchange of trivial and chit chat or news worthy and informative. As a night wears on it'll frequently become a ferocious theological or political debate, depending on the mood and group gathered.

The Southern Culture of the Aperitif & Digestive 

In contrast is the southern European culture of drinking. International statistics indicate that the leading wine consumers, per capita, are still France (56.1 litres), Italy (48.2 litres) and then Portugal (46.3 litres). If looking at the world through Northern eyes, these figures could surely only be sustained by daily visits to chic wine bars, with diverse menus and a community of elegantly dressed drunk drinkers. Le Café however, isn't what you'd categorise as this.

The south has a refined wine drinking culture of appreciating the regional taste, heritage, reputation and perfume of a selected bottle of red or white within the family home. In the family Cave (wine cellar) a barrel of wine may be stored and a suitable amount is poured into a pot each day for daily consumption.

On a Saturday or Sunday, a family will visit or invite friends for an aperitif before lunch. A typical aperitif or pre-dinner drink is a Kir (white wine with black current), Champagne, Martini, Porto or Pastis. This drink is accompanied with peanuts, savoury crackers, sliced salami with bread or on more celebratory occasions with buttered toast and smoked salmon. The visiting family will them return home for a home cooked meal and a further bottle or two. The young are introduced to wine within the family context to start their education and appreciation.

The alternative to drinking at home is the external formal dining experience. This encourages the appreciation of fine food, quality wine and professional service. Again an aperitif is served before a meal. It is usually drank whilst the guest is meeting and greeting other members of the dinning party and choosing from the menu. Similarly to in the north, time is taken to talk, only in the South, more time is taken.

A range of specialities of freshly cooked food from the region is offered on the menu. Pride is taken both in choice of ingredients, cooking time, presentation by the chef and the wine that goes with it. During the meal, the chef may wander through the restaurant greeting customers, pouring drinks and recognising that his/her work of love is enjoyed. The meal will have many courses and last for several hours.

With an elaborate meal, eaten to celebrate a special occasion, a different and suitable bottle of wine is chosen to accompany each course. Red wine, being a wine of choice, especially for the French (with cheese) often dominates the table.

The wine waiter will have extensive knowledge of the wine menu and know the nature of each bottle. He/she is able to advise on a suitable choice of wine according to the chosen dish or meal, if required. For the well educated diner this is not necessary and the restaurant is chosen on the good selection of wine offered.

The wine when served, is opened and genuinely tasted by the consumer to detect if it is served in good condition or not. The wine culture insists that the wine is stored carefully, opened and allowed to breath (especially Cabernet-Sauvignon red for example) before service, decanted if aged and served in the correct glass at the correct temperature.

Post-dinner liqueurs, known as digestives, such as a Cognac or Chartreuse are drunk before, during and after a black coffee.

Exchanges and divides 

Whilst the north enjoy the opportunities to trip across the channel or a frontier or two and appreciate the wine produce of France, Italy and Spain, the exchange in appreciation from the South to the North is rarely seen.

Subtleties of the Southern drinking culture are only experienced and understood in real context for the Northerners, when on holiday. Alongside all the interest that comes from an increase in wine tastings, expanded food menus and newly designed and modern interiors of pubs on behalf of the eager north, the habits of the northern drinker has caused a reaction of distaste and distain in the South.

Drinking in public in a pub or bar suggests, to many a Southern European, that a person has a drink problem, rather than a social life outside of the family home. To the French, Swiss and Italian, the drinking culture insists on having a relationship with the stomach, in this case with food being eaten alongside alcohol drunk.

In more recent years, pubs have come under scrutiny and criticism with the rise of the shameful binge drinker and the increase in under-age drinking. Competition and diversification in the beer and pub market place has introduced many a theme pub which attracts more than ever, the young and restless. Accompanying the latest music and pub club scene are special promotional marketing strategies in addition to ‘happy hours' and a diverse and wider selection of potent beverages.

The Binge drinker, by loose definition, is a person who drinks to get drunk once or twice a week. Whilst frequently reminded by health research evidence that this habit does damage to their health, by police that it can compromise personal security and work related commentary that it is reputation destroying within their social and work circles, the binge drinker persists. The binge drinker is also deemed a danger to others, in the form of drunken related violence or irresponsible driving.

In response to this damaging trend and the rise of too much irresponsible drinking is a national campaign in the UK to enforce a tighter reinforcement of responsibility. The wine and spirits trade association UK, keen to promote drink awareness, launched the new ‘Standards of production and sale of alcohol drinks in the UK', in 2005.

The guidelines encourage operating at the highest possible standards in all areas of production, distribution, marketing and retailing of alcoholic drinks. Included amongst many aspects outlined, is the promotion of sensible drinking and the setting of limits on sales. At the centre of the campaign are the Bar tenders who are to avoid actions such as selling more drinks that may encourage drunkenness. Company policy/ pub policy is written to support the standards and staff in adhering to restrictions. The front of the pub operation now has a strict and clearly re-defined specific work and drinking culture.

For the marketing companies there are regulations written to avoid the marketing of alcoholic drinks to under 18 year olds. The selling, marketing and labelling of alcohol is now under the watchful eye of many an authority and association.

For the traditional pub goer, nothing has changed though. The quiet pint of beer, familiar ambience and conversation still remains. The wine menu may have expanded but not replaced the ales and bitters. The home collection of foreign wines may be increasing but no one would be seen holding a delicate wine glass when out in public. What remains to be seen is if Le Pub comes into it's own with the young and restless French, Italians and Swiss or if the current road carnage is linked to one to many vin rouge before the journey home!

SpotLight is the weekly column exclusively written for 4Hoteliers.com by Sarah Muxlow, it is highlighting the challenges and issues which the global hospitality is facing today.

Sarah is writing for hotel and restaurant owners, hotel chain managers, producers/growers/sellers of food & beverage, restaurant associations, governing bodies and hotel schools. She is looking at the problems they face...competition, trends of branding, staff shortages, unskilled staff, turning out students who are looking for good in-house management training schemes with hotel chains, what makes a good quality training course at a hotel school and more... 

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